[John Robertson in the Chair] — Services for Young People

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 22nd March 2012.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee 2:30 pm, 22nd March 2012

Mr Robertson will recognise, even if the Minister does not, that it is relevant to mention that a proposal from the highest levels of the Government might, if scaled up to a 50% take-up, lead to spending greater than the entirety of spending on young people outside the classroom, as stated in Government figures. It is in the nature of issuing a press release that 29 points are not included if one wants it to become part of the press story. Although the Minister was upset that a project with such laudable aims was the subject of criticism, he has not been a Minister that long and will doubtless become thicker skinned and will get used to the fact that a more independent Select Committee system than we have had before and a more assertive legislature will be prepared to criticise even the most favoured schemes of the most powerful in the land, because it is our job to do so. If we emphasised that in our press releases, rather than all the other issues, I am sorry that it caused such upset and sorry that the hurt to the Minister continues to this day.

On a positive note, I welcome the commitment to publish annually national measures relating to young people’s positive outcomes, with an audit at the end of 2012 of overall progress towards creating a society that is more positive for youth. That is as a result of the work carried out by the Minister, which I am happy to celebrate and emphasise, even if it does not occupy more than three quarters of my speech. I am also pleased to see the Government emphasis on involving young people in developing policy and monitoring progress—for instance, the pledge of £850,000 to the British Youth Council for 2011 to 2013, to set up a new national scrutiny group of representative young people to advise Ministers on how policies affect young people and their families.

I pay tribute to the Minister for regularly meeting young people in care, to ensure that his understanding of the care system is not only theoretical but a personal, direct, linked understanding from young people affected by the policies that he and the rest of us make in Parliament. That, too, is a good thing—as well as having young people in the Public Gallery listening to me going on at such length today.

Positive for Youth does not fully address three outstanding areas, which the Committee was concerned about. First, we welcome the Government’s commitment to retain the statutory duty on councils to secure young people’s access to sufficient activities and services, including their duty to take account of young people’s views in decisions about such activities, which was a key recommendation of our report. We also welcome the commitment to intervene in response to

“well-founded concerns about long-standing failure to improve outcomes and services for young people”— again, a key Committee recommendation.

Our second report, however, called on the Government to specify their minimum expectation for adequate provision of youth services. We asked how communities could know the grounds on which Ministers might be expected to intervene if they did not know what “adequate” looked like. Positive for Youth and the draft statutory guidance currently out for consultation decline to do that, instead stating that a local authority’s efforts to secure a sufficient local offer will be judged by whether it has considered guidance and by its relative performance in improving outcomes for young people. Although we agree that outcomes for young people, rather than inputs, are the right thing to measure, some consideration of what services, if any, are being provided locally must surely form part of the assessment. The duty calls on local authorities to secure

“so far as is reasonably practicable, a local offer”.

I am interested to hear why that caveat was considered necessary and how well received the draft guidance has been in the consultation responses so far.

Secondly, as I have already mentioned, we highlighted confusion about public spending on youth services that the Government have yet adequately to address. The Government continue to dismiss our estimate for public spending on youth services of £350 million a year, which was based on their own figures. When asked repeatedly for their own estimate, they did not provide one, instead challenging the spending figures that the Government have been using for years in answering questions on youth services spending.

I would be grateful to the Minister if he clarified today whether the Government intend to stop using the accounting line on youth service spend and, if so, what alternative instructions his Department has given to local authorities about collecting and reporting data on youth service provision. For instance, if reporting is to change under the early intervention grant, perhaps he can clarify how the Government intend to measure national spend on youth services in future under that grant.

Thirdly, the Committee felt that the Government remained vague about how the national citizen service was to be funded after the 2011 and 2012 pilots. Their response to our report remained ambiguous on that point, stating that they had

“no plans to cease funding for National Citizen Service beyond the pilot years”,

but that

“the Government does not expect to fund the full cost of delivering the programme” in the long term. Perhaps the Minister could update us on the Government’s latest thinking with regard to what proportion they do expect to fund beyond 2012.

There is much to be welcomed in the Positive for Youth strategy, but significant anxiety clearly remains in the sector about the hard reality of funding on the ground locally. Even organisations that are signed up to the Government’s approach of restructuring services to deliver them for less are worried about the extent of cuts. The NCVYS, the Government’s newly appointed strategic partner, said in response to the consultation on Positive for Youth that

“the papers made little reference of how services would be funded to deliver support to young people. This is especially concerning given the implicit assumption that voluntary and community organisations will be expected to fill in gaps left by retreating services.”

Regular reports of the closures of local youth services bear out that fear.

If we are to provide adequately for the 80% of young people’s time spent outside school, we must retain the best youth services—in particular, those whose effectiveness has the confidence of local commissioners. The Government must be prepared to intervene when those are threatened, and they need to clarify precisely the grounds on which they will do so.